15 Things to Watch and Read on Black Experiences in America

Nat'l Urban League
Sep 3 · 5 min read
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From the film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay

For #BlackJewishUnity Week, September 6–11, AJC and the National Urban League created resource lists to provide each community with films, articles, and books about the Black and American Jewish experiences, respectively.

FILMS

Selma (2014)

Directed by trailblazer Ava DuVernay and nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, Selma is based on the epic marches from Selma to Montgomery to secure equal voting rights in an event that forever altered history. John Legend and Common won both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for the stirring protest anthem “Glory.” Cast: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey

Boyz N the Hood (1991)

The feature directorial debut of John Singleton, Boyz N the Hood is the coming-of-age story of three young men growing up in a South Central Los Angeles neighborhood: Doughboy, an unambitious drug dealer; his brother Ricky, a college-bound teenage father; and Ricky’s best friend Tre, who aspires to a brighter future beyond the ‘hood. Tre’s resolve is strengthened by a strong father. Cast: Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut, Laurence Fishburne, Nia Long, Regina King, and Angela Bassett.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Produced, written, and directed by Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing explores the simmering racial tension in a Brooklyn neighborhood on the hottest day of the year, and its explosion into violence. Lee dedicated the film the film to the families of six victims of brutality or racial violence: Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Griffith, Arthur Miller, Jr., Edmund Perry, Yvonne Smallwood, and Michael Stewart. Cast: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Richard Edson, John Turturro, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Bill Nunn

Glory (1989)

Glory is the first major motion picture to tell the story of black U.S. soldiers fighting for their freedom from slavery during the Civil War. The film follows the soldiers of 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the Union Army’s first African-American regiment, from the formation of their regiment to their heroic actions at the Second Battle of Fort Wagner. Directed by Edward Zwick, the film won Oscars for Best Sound, Best Cinematography, and Best Supporting Actor for Denzel Washington. Cast: Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes, Andre Braugher, Morgan Freeman

Not Your Negro (2016)

Using the unfinished manuscript “Remember This House” and letters written by author James Baldwin, this documentary explores the state of the United States during the Civil Rights era by offering accounts and profiles of some of the leaders of the time: Medgar Evans, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The film is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.

Moonlight (2016)

In this gripping and visually stunning film, a young Black man navigates the intersections of his identities (race, sexuality, class) as he comes of age in Liberty City, Miami. A. O. Scott of The New York Times captures it perfectly: “‘Moonlight’ dwells on the dignity, beauty and vulnerability of Black bodies, on the existential and physical matter of Black lives.”

Books

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (nonfiction, 2010)
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Warmth of Other Suns explores the Great Migrations, the 20th-Century movement of African Americans out of the South, through the stories of three persons: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper’s wife who left Mississippi in the 1930s for Chicago; George Swanson Starling, who left Florida for New York City in the 1940s; and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, a doctor who left Louisiana in the early 1950s, moving to Los Angeles.

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (nonfiction, 2010)
Alexander presents a compelling case that the U.S. criminal justice system uses the War on Drugs as a primary tool for enforcing traditional, as well as new modes of discrimination and oppression. These new modes of racism have led to not only the highest rate of incarceration in the world, but also a disproportionately large rate of imprisonment for African American men.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (fiction, 1952)
An unnamed narrator describes growing up in a Black community in the South, attending a Negro college from which he is expelled, moving to New York and becoming the chief spokesman of the Harlem branch of “the Brotherhood”, before retreating amid violence and confusion to the basement lair of the Invisible Man he imagines himself to be. The novel won the National Book Award for fiction, and established Ralph Ellison as one of the key writers of the century.

Malcolm X with Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcom X (autobiography, 1965)
Published shortly after Malcolm X’s assassination, this account of the life of Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, resulted from a years-long collaboration between Malcom X and the journalist Alex Haley. It is considered one of the most influential books of the 20th Century. It describes Malcolm’s childhood in Michigan, his young adulthood in Boston and New York City, his involvement in organized crime and his six-and-a-half year prison term which led to his ministry with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. It documents his disillusionment with the Nation of Islam and his conversion to orthodox Sunni Islam.

Dr. Abram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist (nonfiction, 2019)
Kendi relates his evolving concept of racism through the events of his own life, touching on observations from classes he has taught, contemporary events such as the O. J. Simpson robbery case and 2000 United States presidential election, and through historical events such as the scientific proposals of polygenism in Europe in the 1600s and racial segregation in the United States. He examines his own internalized racism and suggests models for anti-racist individual actions and systemic changes.

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (autobiography, 1969)
In this autobiography, author Maya Angelou shares details of her childhood from age 6 to 16. Her story is one of a poor Black girl growing up in the South, then a teenager in California, and all the many things that meant in the 1930s and 40s.

FOR CHILDREN

Hair Love (2019)

Winner of the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, Hair Love follows the story of a man who must do his 7-year-old daughter’s hair for the first time. Writer-director Matthew Cherry, a former player in the NFL, was inspired to create the film to counter stereotypes about Black fathers. It was adapted as a children’s book with illustrations by Vashti Harrison.

The Princess and the Frog (2009)

Disney Animation’s first Black heroine was inspired in part by famed restaurateur Leah Chase, and the story loosely based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Frog Prince.” Set in 1926 New Orleans, the film tells the story of a hardworking waitress named Tiana who dreams of opening her own restaurant. After kissing a prince who has been turned into a frog by an evil voodoo sorcerer, Tiana becomes a frog herself and must find a way to turn back into a human before it is too late.

Lupita Nyong’o, Sulwe (2019)

Sulwe is “the color of midnight,” the darkest in her multihued family, and is teased in school. She prays for lighter skin. Through a legend about Night and Day, two sisters who loved each other but were treated differently, Sulwe learns that she is “dark and beautiful, bright and strong.”

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